The Pentagon’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific has come under increasing scrutiny as conflicts continue in the Middle East, particularly in Israel.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale recently contributed to this debate at the annual El Pomar Conference in Colorado Springs, saying, “The Administration’s strategy fails because it does not distinguish between threat and opportunity.”
McHale continued by contrasting the opportunities and challenges posed in the Asia-Pacific region with the current violence in the Middle East: “From a U.S. military perspective, the risk of war in the Pacific is far lower than the risk of our involvement in a war at multiple foreseeable locations throughout the greater Mideast and Southwest Asia.”
This assertion is supported not only by the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but also by America’s direct commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and indirect threats in Syria and elsewhere.
Due to an eroding defense budget, this strategic guidance may prove to be a rhetorical exercise. The document may serve to justify removing military assets from Europe, but the President has made defense spending his lowest priority, and all world regions will suffer as a result. Programs that support air and sea power are being cut, along with everything else in the defense budget, so it is unclear how the U.S. will achieve its goals in the Asia-Pacific.
Regrettably, even if the “shift” is little more than rhetoric, it still signals to America’s adversaries in the Middle East that the U.S. will be less able to protect its interests and support its allies. Those in the U.S. who favor a smaller military or less direct engagement often forget that American foreign policy decisions are not made in a vacuum: The enemy also gets a vote. Less American presence in the Middle East has and will continue to embolden rogue states such as Iran and non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
McHale is not suggesting that there should be regional winners and losers for U.S. security policy priorities. He argues instead that engagements in the Pacific region remain critical but that “Centcom,” the operational area that covers the Middle East, should remain a priority for the military in the immediate future.
Even amid dramatic cuts to defense, U.S. leadership should never let budget dictate strategy. The Pentagon should address threats to U.S. interests first and foremost. It is the job of the President and Congress to provide the funding necessary for these defenses. It is their constitutional responsibility to do so.